The latest from director Kevin Macdonald is based on the memoir of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Guantanamo Bay detainee who was incarcerated there for 14 years. Slahi was never charged with a crime during the entire time he was kept at the U.S. Naval Station, and the film details the efforts of defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) to have him released. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the military prosecutor on the other side of the habeas corpus case, and French actor Tahar Rahim portrays the film’s central figure. Keep reading for our take on how the all-star cast performed in their respective roles.
Variety calls Rahim “a young Robert De Niro,” high praise that is well-deserved based on his work in The Mauritanian. The actor gives a powerhouse performance marked by his ability to deliver on incredibly intense scenes in which his character is tortured while being interrogated. The stakes are sky high, and a lesser actor couldn’t have handled the degrading circumstances into which Slahi is placed. But Rahim stays present and emotionally connected while his character is abused physically, mentally, and sexually. These scenes make up a relatively small portion of the film, and the thespian masterfully layers his performance to reflect the innocence Slahi possessed before they took place. An especially notable moment is when he’s connecting with a fellow prisoner through the barriers in their exercise yard. Slahi encourages him to imagine the sound of the ocean and then beautifully externalizes its effect on the human soul. And after his torture, Rahim manages to maintain Slahi’s dignity. He brings humanity to a person being treated like a caged animal and displays genuine forgiveness for his abusers. It’s pure artistry and hits deep.
A large part of Foster’s role in The Mauritanian involves visiting a prisoner regarded as highly dangerous, which may bring to mind her Oscar-winning performance as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Hollander possesses the same strength and intelligence as the young FBI cadet, but on top of those characteristics, Foster layers a certain unflappable quality that points to the attorney’s years of experience in her field. You learn that Hollander’s work is her life, and while Foster’s performance delivers on that premise, it would have been nice to see her externalize a little more of the emotion that drives such a life calling as hers.
Although his character is rigid in his principles, Cumberbatch plays against other common traits often associated with military personnel. The actor portrays Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch as a relatively gentle, softer-spoken individual who’s the other side of the same coin as Hollander. Both possess an incredible force of will and drive to pursue their view of justice, but the military prosecutor often uses a less-direct approach. And on top of his character’s earnestness, Cumberbatch adds the same observant and analytical qualities that made his work as the titular character in the Sherlock series so effective. The actor is fascinating to watch as always and pulls off an impressive Louisiana dialect to boot.
Besides these performances from Rahim, Foster, and Cumberbatch, keep an eye out for the strong supporting work of Shailene Woodley and Zachary Levi. You can decide for yourself how well they delivered when The Mauritanian releases on February 19. And be sure to stick around for the credits, which include footage of the real-life people portrayed in the film. We promise you’ll be even more impressed by the spot-on casting work from Nina Gold.